Reese Witherspooon in A Wrinkle in Time

With the docudrama Selma and the documentary 13th, director Ava DuVernay has established herself as one of the foremost political filmmakers in the U.S. These movies tackle complex social issues—civil rights and the U.S. penal system, respectively—and, more importantly, they elucidate how political forces govern society. Given her interests and creative strengths, DuVernay is an odd choice to direct Disney’s new live-action adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved young-adult fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time (1962); the book, which calls on readers to imagine great stretches of time and space, has enraptured generations of children mainly because it resists logical explanation. Its best passages appeal to the mind’s eye alone, and its fanciful tone (which gives it the air of a classic fairy tale despite L’Engle’s focus on modern science) is too delicate for DuVernay’s probing sensibility.

The director not only fails to capture the childlike wonder of A Wrinkle in Time; she also reveals herself to be a terrible director of children. The young actors come off as stiff and awkward, never conveying their characters’ rich emotional lives. Deric McCabe, who plays the preternaturally gifted six-year-old Charles Wallace, is embarrassing to watch; he struggles with the character’s robust vocabulary, and when the story calls on him to convey awe, he just seems obnoxious. Playing his older sister, Meg, Storm Reid seems too confident to communicate the character’s battle with low self-esteem, and she too seems unable to convey any sense of amazement during her extraordinary adventures across the universe.

The adults don’t fare much better. Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling, playing the intergalactic spirits who guide the young heroes on their journey, seem uncertain how to approach their characters. Witherspoon seems especially lost as Mrs. Whatsit, the leader of the spirits. A master of interplanetary travel but clueless in the ways of human beings, Mrs. Whatsit is charming in the book because she seems at once wise and naive, yet Witherspoon vacillates between these two extremes, rendering the character nonsensical. Chris Pine, who plays the children’s scientist father, has trouble passing as a brilliant physicist and conveys little tenderness for the children, who rescue him from imprisonment on a dark planet. As a result, the reunion between them, one of L’Engle’s most emotional passages, falls flat, becoming one more example of how DuVernay and company fail to translate the book into cinematic terms.  v